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Differences between public and private sector graduate jobs

You’ll be faced with plenty of choices before and after you graduate. We’ll walk you through one of the most common distinctions between jobs.

There are boundless opportunities for ambitious graduates in both government and private organisations both large and small. To make the choice, it pays to know what each are about. There are bound to be many differences between any and all jobs you choose from, regardless of category, but there are some general principles to keep in mind common to each category you can use as a starting point in determining what working in each sector might be like. 

Hours worked vary substantially

Plenty of private organisations don’t stick strictly to a 9 - 5 schedule. If you’re an accounting graduate, you’ll likely be asked to work many more hours per week during busy season, even if you aren’t at a Big 4 firm. Management consultants, particularly at places like McKinsey or Bain, will be expected to work long hours (at least 8:30am - 6:30pm) plus two or three hours of work from home each night. 

Even if you aren’t in an industry where long or unusual hours are common, you’ll often be expected to work longer than normal. The threat of competition means everyone’s working to deliver the most positive client outcomes. Although it won’t always be frantic and you won’t always work overtime, it’s something anyone working in the private sector should come to expect.

Conversely, government work is generally 9 - 5. If you’re working for a federal intelligence agency, on a foreign affairs posting or something unusual, you may work more, but for the most part government workers can expect steady hours. This is one of the greatest advantages of government work. On average, it tends to be better suited to work-life balance. 

That doesn’t mean you should discount the private sector however! If you’re willing to go beyond what’s expected in terms of hours worked and aren’t afraid of a continuously evolving routine, private sector work may suit you. Many people find that invigorating. If you’re big on work-life balance though, a government job will likely offer the stability you need. Remember though that these are generally true, not universally! There will always be outliers, so it pays to check these assumptions against the roles you’re looking into. 

Pay tends to be different

Australian Public Service (APS) employees are paid in tiers. These are consistent across all federal government departments. An APS 1 officer, for example, can expect to make exactly $56,511 per year. If you’re an APS 6 officer, you’ll make $106,046 per year. It’s clear-cut and completely transparent, which many government workers love about it. You always know what you stand to make on your next promotion. 

Conversely, the private sector has no limit on what they could pay employees. You could make less than an APS 1 position, or you could make millions. It depends on your role in the organisation and how important you are to its functioning. This is because private organisations have to compete in the open market. To attract the best talent, they need attractive salary and benefits packages. You can leverage this fact in job interviews with private organisations, negotiate for bonuses or raises and generally enjoy greater flexibility. For government roles, it’s possible to negotiate which APS level you’ll start on, but otherwise, it’s far less flexible, as they have a set hiring budget and operating standards. 

Of course, private employers aren’t just handing out enormous salary packages! In more ways than just time spent, you’ll have to earn your keep.

Performance standards are different

You’ll likely have key performance indicators (KPIs) to uphold in the private sector, or equivalent clearly defined success metrics. This is so your managers can evaluate your performance accurately and where you might need improvement. This is why hours worked can be volatile. Your work is more goal-oriented; if the work isn’t finished by the end of a conventional day, sometimes you just have to buckle up and stay later to finish it. 

This isn’t to say government jobs have no performance standards. In just about every federal graduate program, you’ll be tested more than you likely ever have been before. The difference is you aren’t competing with anyone. If you don’t get everything done by 5:00pm, you won’t get a call from a client, or boss asking you to stay late. The work can wait until morning. To earn that higher pay package in the private sector, you’ve got to be switched-on every day… and stay that way for longer. 

Different career opportunities

Plenty of people have transferred from public to private and vice versa throughout their careers. It can make for a rewarding, diverse career. However, it’s often easier to stay within your sector once you’re there. Federal government jobs, for instance, have exceptional freedom of lateral movement between departments. If you’re working in the Department of Education and Training, you could slide right into the Department of Communications and the Arts. If you’re in the Department of Agriculture, you could soon find a place in the Department of Finance. This can make being exposed to many different subject areas an easier experience than in the private sector. There will often be a competitive performance-based selection process when a vacancy is opened, but it’s far easier to land the position from within federal government than outside it. Similar freedom of movement can be expected between state government departments too, but not from state to federal. 

In the private sector, you’re only restricted by your qualifications. If you suit the specifications for a job to a greater extent than your competitors, you get in. The good thing about working in a private job is you can communicate to your employers what you want to get out of it and they can help you get there. They can provide you with training and opportunities to grow the necessary skill set and push you to get there. Your supervisors in public sector jobs will help you do the same if you ask, but they are limited by their resources and other obligations.

Different lifestyle opportunities

Unless you’re working for DFAT or some intelligence agencies, a federal government job will take place predominantly in Canberra. It’s a beautiful city to live and work in, but for many graduates, the call to travel has its own appeal. Private jobs can take place just about anywhere, so long as you possess the skills and education required. Many afford ample opportunities to travel interstate and internationally. You may be called upon to travel in some government jobs for short periods, like for conferences or summits, but being able to live and work somewhere entirely different is generally reserved for the private sector. If you want this experience in the public sector, you’ll have to apply directly for or transfer into DFAT or an intelligence agency, but both these options are exceptionally competitive. 

A word of advice…

Ultimately, the thing you’ll be doing most throughout your graduate job is, well… the job! Your foremost concern should always be the type of work you expect to be doing. If a government job offers that, great. If a private job does, that’s good too. These are all tertiary considerations after you’ve determined what sort of work you’ll be doing. After all, a large chunk of your life will be dedicated to it! Whatever your choice, there really isn’t a wrong answer. Both the public and private sectors afford exciting opportunities to learn, grow, adapt and overcome challenges. They’ll both make you a stronger, better person and we wish you the best regardless of choice.

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